Google on Tuesday is reportedly going to unveil a new social service that will incorporate a stream of "media and status updates" into Gmail. These streams would not be public, but would require you to connect with your fellow Google users and may eventually incorporate other Google services like YouTube and Picasa, according to The Wall Street Journal.
While a Google-developed social media stream incorporated into Gmail sounds like an interesting concept, it also sounds like Google is trying to create a closed version of Twitter where your status updates are not public by default, but private. That's a mistake to my mind, and I certainly hope that rumors are wrong on that point.
We will likely find out more soon. Google has sent invitations out to the media for a 10 a.m. (Pacific Time) press conference set for Tuesday.
In the interim, here are five things Google should do to make Gmail's rumored social networking stream a winner.
Play Nice With Others
If this is going to work for Google, then it's all about tapping into the application programming interfaces (APIs) of other services. If you don't know what an API is, it's basically how third-party twitter clients like Tweetdeck allow you to send and receive tweets, and it's what allows your Twitter account to automatically update your Facebook status.
Google should build on already popular social networking tools (Facebook and Twitter) rather than trying to convince users to build a Google-centric network. I doubt many people want to start from scratch and build yet another group of friends around their Google account. If they did, wouldn't Google's own Orkut social network be the most popular Web site in the world?
To win, Google should follow the path of third-party clients like Seesmic and Tweetdeck by incorporating everything they can think of like Flickr as well as Picasa, and updates to Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, and LinkedIn. If Google really is interested in free-flowing information, then it's all about third-party APIs for Gmail's social features.
The great thing about Gmail is the wide variety of widgets you can add to your interface, but you know what the the worst thing about Gmail is? The wide variety of widgets you can add to your interface. There seems to be a widget for everything from third-party interfaces for Remember the Milk and Twitter to Google Apps and search.
The problem is these widgets can sometimes misbehave, take a little bit too long to load, and sometimes are not even that useful. If Gmail's social features could somehow integrate into my chat widget or find somewhere else to live--like the right side of the inbox--that might be a better solution.
Don't Mention Orkut
Orkut might be a popular social network in places like Brazil, but for the rest of us Orkut is just not that interesting. If Gmail's social features require an Orkut account, then you can count me out. My digital identity is already spread across way too many services as it is. A better alternative would be to encourage me to use my public Google Profile as a dashboard for all my social services, similar to the company's Dashboard for Google services. In some ways, my Google profile is already an index of my digital identity, and since I've already built it, why not give me a better reason to make more use of this profile?
Drop the Google Friending Business
Gmail's social features will reportedly only share your social information with people you're connected with. If that means I have to start connecting with people on Google, then this is an instant fail. Who wants to go through that again? Google has been trying this with Google Reader, and from what I can tell it hasn't become a phenomenon. Gmail's social service would work better as a third-party social networking aggregator than a brand new service that's just adding more noise.
Make it easy and useful
Software developer and blogger Dave Winer made an interesting point on his blog Scripting.com. Winer points out that its very easy to attach a sound file, image or document to an e-mail, but tweeting out a picture is not as simple. If Google makes it easy to share images and MP3s, as well as links, that would go a long way in making Google's social venture more useful to users. But again, if those tweets/status updates can't be sent out to my existing networks, there's very little incentive to use it.
Connect with Ian on Twitter (@ianpaul).